The Gospel According to Mark Twain

MarkTwain-Quotes

 

 

I.

So much blood has been shed by the Church because of an omission from the Gospel: “Ye shall be indifferent as to what your neighbor’s religion is.” Not merely tolerant of it, but indifferent to it. Divinity is claimed for many religions; but no religion is great enough or divine enough to add that new law to its code (Mark Twain: A Biography).

Samuel Clemens, Mark Twain, was a biting satirist who, having been reared in Presbyterian fundamentalism, left behind biblical literalism and organized religion.  He was not able, however, to walk completely away from religion; thus, he was left to critique it.  Appropriately, he primarily challenged Christianity of which he had been a part; thus, he knew the faith inside out.
Clemens also saw in his distinctively American context the fatal blending of religion and politics.  He realized that both institutions were ultimately self-serving, and when they joined forces the dangers were doubled.  “So much blood has been shed by the Church,” he wrote; whatever followed paled in comparison to that damning historical notation.  Indeed, how could the Church have shed any blood at all?
If there are to be religious movements, then there must be absolute respect for anyone else’s decision to be related to a religious movement as long as it’s not hurting adherents or enemies.  Toleration won’t do the trick; we have ample evidence of how two religious groups become all-out enemies when one claims to tolerate the other.  Indifference is the key.
If I am indifferent to your religious commitments, I will not be trying to convert you to mine.  We have to wonder how much respectful proselytic activity is going on anyway based on a Gallup poll that has been conducted every year since 1973.  The results for 2013 are just in. Confidence in 16 organizations is analyzed by this survey.  Organized religion as an institution is trusted by less than half of the American people although confidence in organized religion did go up four percentage points this year compared to last year, from 44 to 48 percent.  The number one institution far and away that Americans trust more than any other is the military, which 76 percent of all Americans believe is the most trustworthy institution in American culture. And the institution with the lowest possible rating, with maybe 10 percent of Americans expressing any confidence whatsoever in it, is the US Congress.
Born in 1835, Samuel Clemens died at the age of 74 in 1910.  His humor, rarely haha humor except for some memorable scenes in his novels, did not betray the difficulties and tragedies he weathered from poverty during his growing up years to the untimely deaths of two of his four children.  His critics notwithstanding, he did not hold his tongue or his pen.
Writing to his older brother, Orion, he described his religion in this way:

I have a religion–but you will call it blasphemy. It is that there is a God for the rich man but none for the poor….Perhaps your religion will sustain you, will feed you–I place no dependence in mine. Our religions are alike, though, in one respect–neither can make a man happy when he is out of luck (A Letter to Orion Clemens).

I consistently remind my preaching students that unless we have a gospel for tragic times as well as for triumphant times, I doubt we have any gospel at all. This is precisely what Mark Twain was talking about. If one reads the Bible closely, and I mean Hebrew scripture as well as Christian scripture, she or he will indeed find a God who claims to be a champion of the poor but  really rewarding the wealthy, the already prosperous.
Despite the exaggeration about God being around only for the privileged and the lucky, Clemens believed in some kind of divine reality whose presence could be experienced.  Of his dear friend Helen Keller, he said that when with her he felt the presence of God.  This God whose presence he felt, though, was not the God of the Bible–as he referred to God, making no distinction between ancient Hebrew perspectives and those of Jesus.
Ann Reese loaned me a book titled The Bible According to Mark Twain. In the book, there’s a much worse heresy or series of heresies than he confessed to his brother.  For example, in one place he writes,

To trust the God of the Bible is to trust an irascible, vindictive, fierce and ever fickle and changeful master; to trust the true God is to trust a being who has uttered no promises, but whose beneficent, exact, and changeless ordering of the machinery of his colossal universe is proof that he is at least steadfast to his purposes; whose unwritten laws, so far as they affect man, being equal and impartial show that he is just and fair….

II.
Not everything Mark Twain wrote was humorous.  Case in point, his “The War Prayer.”  His exclusive publisher initially rejected the short, short story, and, in the face of that almost unheard of rejection, he told his friends to try for publication again, but only after his death because, as he reasoned, “Only dead folk can tell the truth.”
Written by during the Philippine-American War in the first decade of last century, “The War Prayer” tells of a patriotic church service held to send an unidentified town’s young men off to battle. During the service, an elderly stranger enters the sanctuary and with the pastor’s permission addresses the patriotic congregants.  Quoting verbatim now from “The War Prayer”:

I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God….He has heard the prayer of His servant, your shepherd, and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.  God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of Him who heareth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.  You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: “Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!” That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!
O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.

III.
In the “great American novel,” Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain has his major character, Huck, saying, “Just because you’re taught that something’s right and everyone believes it’s right, it don’t make it right.”  That is a powerfully counter-cultural comment in many contexts.  When we study the history of ideas and their impact on various societies, one of the very first facts to awaken us to reality is that ideas have shaped and still shape how many people think and live even if the truth of those ideas is never investigated.  The societies believe that majority rules and that might makes right.  If our predecessors have passed along something to us as truth, we tend to take it uncritically as such.  If the majority of those around us act with a given idea as truth, we tend not to question our group.
In tribal societies, to question the clan was an invitation to be excluded if not excommunicated.  Today, with all the news sources available to us for verification of facts in freedom-protected nations, many individuals will tend to join in with what the larger group believes to be truth.  If media groups publish or pronounce it, then we have the truth.  Americans, for example, largely believed the details printed in Twain’s obituary; the only thing was, he wasn’t dead so he sent a cable from London with his famous quip, “The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
On a much more serious note, destructive values such as racism pass, in any number of places, from generation to generation because they are unquestioned.  Twain confronted in several places the racism that permitted the institution of slavery to continue, most notably in the experience of his most famous character, Huck Finn.  The adults in his life who try to offer Huck parental guidance since his mother was long since deceased and his father, Pap, a drunk, are religious fundamentalists and slaveholders; and in their defense, the Bible does not question, much less condemn, slavery.  Particularly the Widow Douglas and Miss Watson have taught Huck all about heaven and hell as well as the legalities of slaveholding; any slave who would try to run away  from an owner and any non-slave who would try to help her or him.  Huck believes them because he knows they care about his well-being.  The crisis of conscience for Huck grows, however, because of his deep friendship with Jim, a slave owned by Miss Watson.  Eventually, Huck can’t bear for anyone–especially his beloved Jim–to be denied the freedom he so prizes.
The Broadway musical version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is called “Big River.”  I quote Huck’s soliloquy at this point in the plot from the play rather than the novel, though there is little variance.

It hit me all of a sudden that here was the hand of God, letting me know I’d been watched all along from above…and people who helped [an n word] like I’d done were the ones who went to the everlasting fire.  I decided to pray and see if I could stop being the kind of boy I was.  But you can’t pray a lie, I found that out.  I’ll write a letter – then see if I can pray.

     “Dear Miss Watson.  Your runaway [n word] Jim is down     
     here two miles south of Hillsboro and Mr. Phelps will give   
     him up for the reward if you send.  Huck Finn.”
I felt light as a feather, washed clean of sin for the first time in my whole life!  But then I got to thinking about [my trip with Jim] down the river and we a-float along, talking, singing and laughing.  And him saying I was his only friend in the world…[tearing up letter and flinging the pieces to the wind, Huck continues]. All right, then, I’ll go to hell! I’ll take up wickedness again. And for a starter, I’ll steal Jim out of slavery again.  And if I can think of something worse, I’ll do that too:  because as long as I’m in, and in for good, I might as well go whole hog!

According to Roy Blunt writing a 2008 Time magazine article titled “America’s Original Superstar,” Mark Twain’s issues with religion or what put Mark Twain off about religion was its “bossiness and its alignment with corrupt community values that people–though standing to profit–insisted on calling a higher power.”
Evidently Mark Twain had a special concern about Christian missionaries, and in a piece called The United States of Lyncherdom, his original version not published until the year 2000, he says to the missionaries in China whom he believed were spreading the “malady of [Christianized] Western civilization abroad”:

…almost every convert runs the risk of catching our civilization….We ought to think twice before we encourage a risk like that; for, once civilized, China can never be uncivilized again….O compassionate missionary, leave China! Come home and convert these Christians!

Amen!

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